W. Joseph Campbell

Turbulent times and the myth of ‘bra burning’

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on November 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

Bra-burning,” I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, has long been a “convenient shorthand for describing the upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s” in America.

At the 'Freedom Trash Can'

The term, I write, is often “casually invoked as a defining phrase, or cliché, of those troubled times—as in ‘the era of bra-burning,’ ‘the hysteria of bra-burning,’ the time of ‘raucous bra burning,’ when there were ‘bra burnings across the land,’ [and] ‘the bra-burning days of the turbulent 1960s’….”

The Dunkirk Observer newspaper in western New York State yesterday added to that refrain, asserting in a commentary about women’s liberation:

“The 1960s and 70s witnessed some more turbulent times in this liberation movement, including bra burning and other forms of protest.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong–which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–the notion of bra-burning stems from the women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City on September 7, 1968. About 100 or so demonstrators gathered on the boardwalk there to protest the Miss America pageant as a mindless spectacle degrading to women.

Leaders of the protest have long insisted that no bras were set afire that day–or at any time as part of a women’s liberation protest. Robin Morgan, lead organizer of the Atlantic City protest, has asserted, for example:

“There were no bras burned. That’s a media myth.”

However, Getting It Wrong offers evidence that bras and other items were burned–or at least smoldered–for a short time during the protest, a centerpiece of which was a burn barrel the demonstrators called the “Freedom Trash Can” (see photo, above).

Into the burn barrel they tossed such items as bras, girdles, and high-heeled shoes, as well as copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines.

My research, as described in Getting It Wrong, found a long-overlooked contemporaneous account in the Press of Atlantic City that said bras and other items in the Freedom Trash Can were set afire that day.

That account was written by a veteran reporter named John Boucher and published September 8, 1968, beneath the headline:

Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Boucher’s article, which appeared on page 4 of the Press, was separately endorsed years later by Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City newspaper. He also covered the women’s liberation protest.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some [Miss America] Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire,” Katz said in an interview with me.

“I am quite certain of this.”

Katz also said:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the Boardwalk.”

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the witness accounts of Boucher and Katz offer no support for “the far more vivid and popular imagery that many bras went up in flames” in a bonfire on the Boardwalk.

At most, “bra-burning” was confined to that single occasion at Atlantic City in 1968. Even then, it was more akin to bra-smoldering than a fiery spectacle in which demonstrators twirled flaming bras over their heads.


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